Understanding Influence Operations: A Gastronomic Approach

By Robert Schoenhaus

Human influence is the linchpin that binds military activities together and relates those activities to the efforts of other governmental and non-governmental agencies. People, not infrastructure or equipment, present problems in any given country and people will inevitably solve them. Recognizing this truism, our challenge is to accept and understand the need for us to influence the lives of others, and to develop some level of expertise and collaboration in doing so. 

Human influence is complex, but we need a simple construct to frame a discussion about it. I believe that people may be influenced to change an attitude or behavior through a combination information, persuasion and both general and specific shaping activities. In order to get someone to change an existing attitude or behavior, or to adopt a new one, we have to inform them about what we would like them to do. The clearer the information, and the more familiar the manner in which it is communicated, the more likely it is to be understood. There are some instances, where people are predisposed to believe or act, in which providing missing information alone can have that effect. In most cases, however, additional effort is needed.

That additional effort may take the form of persuasion, some of which may be directed toward reason and some of which may focus on emotional appeals, and/or actions designed to shape the target’s environment is ways that allow for and support decisions being made in our favor. Shaping activities may be general in nature – designed to create a climate (safety, security, physical support) that allows positive decisions to be made – or specific incentives given to the influence target. Shaping activities can be undertaken by a wide variety of entities, within the Department of Defense (DoD), outside of DoD but with the U.S. government, and outside the government in the private sector or by our allies. What makes them relevant to our understanding of influence is the connection between the specific shaping activity and a desired effect or objective. Outside that connection, an act of random shaping is just that – random. The shape of an influence operation is derived from our understanding of the objectives to be achieved and both the societal environment in which we are acting and the individuals and groups from within that society who we are targeting.

Viewing an operational arena in which human influence operations are being conducted is, in some ways, like observing a bowl of spaghetti. There are two reasons for this. The first of these is that each influence effort is like a single strand of spaghetti, with a start point and an end point, and that there are multiple efforts ongoing in the same “bowl” at any given time. The second is an expansion of the first. In any given life, in any given society, there are multiple strands of influence intertwined and mutually reinforcing at any given time.

Life’s everyday influences account for a large portion of the meal. For the sake of illustration, we’ll characterize these strands of influence as being composed of healthy, whole wheat. Assuming that the individual and society are not in a state of flux, such as might be caused by a war or internally displacing disaster, the bowl might appear to be full of these strands, representing all forms of natural societal influence.

Now let’s think about adding some color to the mix. Again, for illustration purposes, we’ll add strands representing negative influence that will incorporate red peppers into their base flour and some that are spinach based, representing positive influence (at least to our way of thinking).

In peacetime, positive and negative strands may be added to the bowl in small doses without dramatically affecting the flavor of the meal. Applied to the surface, they are observable at first but gradually work their way into the mix as the slow churn of daily events keeps things moving. Their flavors are subtle and somewhat offsetting to one another, but if ingested separately or with the whole wheat, they will flavor perceptions in the moment. Overstocking the bowl with one or the other will, naturally, create an imbalance, and that imbalance, if not offset, could eventually affect what is viewed as the “normal” flavor of the meal, and the society in general.

The rate of churn increases during periods of societal stress, and otherwise absorbed strands of color can once again rise to the surface. Adding random spices and condiments to the confusion of color and texture causes greater distortion that, if untreated, can cause societal indigestion and worse.

Not wanting the message to get lost in the metaphor, I’ll finish this article in clear language. Human influence practitioners must be both adaptable and consistent in their approach to any given situation. When a contingency or operations plan is written, a linear influence plan supporting the end-state objective is developed. While this plan remains in play until that end-state objective is reached, along the way other desired effects and interim objectives arise and separate influence plans must be developed and introduced to the local societal mix. It is the job of the influence practitioner not only to pursue positive influence activities, but also to observe the society as a whole and to identify and evaluate negative influence activities as they appear.

Extrapolating beyond single events or theaters of operation, maintaining a policy of global engagement requires that we study, long and hard, the complex nature of other societies. Becoming culturally competent includes understanding the many influence strands that comprise the societal norm, so that the effects of adding color – in one form or another – can be discerned, and the results to some extent predicted. I’ll close with some advice for anyone who finds himself or herself working with influence practitioners to accomplish a goal or objective. Understanding the components of human influence can be particularly helpful in understanding where an influence “product” or action fits in the overall campaign. If an influence practitioner can answer the following questions, you know that he or she has a firm grasp of what we are trying to accomplish: 1) What objective are you supporting?; 2) What target(s) are you trying to reach and how are they relevant to the objective?; 3) Is this product or action designed to inform, motivate or shape?; 4) What attitudinal or behavior change are you expecting?; and 5) What do you see as the end state for your target(s) with regard to the objective?

Colonel (ret.) Bob Schoenhaus has been a part of the psychological operations community since 1976, and has commanded PSYOP units at the company, battalion, and group levels. Since 2001, he has been working in various capacities in the Pentagon and has been an active contributor to the evolution of the information operations and strategic communication processes.

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